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Equerry Exclusive Interview with

Martine Fennelly (Part 1)

Martine was interviewed by Emily Covington in 1999.  Our questions, and her answers, are presented below.

Background: Martine Fennelly is the founder of the Equestrian Cancer Initiative (ECI), an organization which aims to help cancer patients within the equestrian community. Martine intends to develop ECI into a nationally organized program that provides assistance through various means of volunteerism. This program recognizes the deeply healing impact horses have on us, and acknowledges the essential place they have in our lives.

In this part of our interview, Emily spoke with Martine primarily about the program itself; how she conceived of ECI, her plans and goals for ECI as well as details about the program itself. In the second half of our interview (coming soon), Martine shares the details of her more personal story including the importance of horses in her life during her treatment and recovery from cervical cancer.

Equerry: What led you to conceive of the Equestrian Cancer Initiative?

Martine: I had been given another shot at life. It wasn’t a sure thing, yet, I was riding and doing a lot better than many others. I really felt that I needed to give something back because I had been given so much.

I asked myself what my biggest blessing was. Aside from my health, it was my horses. That my horses provided a safe haven during my recovery, and provided me with an environment that was so healing, was so important. It was obvious to me that I wanted to share that knowledge and to say, “This is important”. If I can make that healing environment available to other people who are in the same situation, I mean, that’s it! 

Equerry: How did you go about creating it? 

Martine: I’m an entrepreneur, so I’m not afraid of starting anything. It’s just a question of how to go about it. So, I had the plan in my mind. After the whole recovery process, my financial reserves were pretty drained and I went back to work to make some money. It was then that I started my apparel business, together with a partner. I was always busy, but finally I said to myself, “You’ve now been busy for 4 1/2- 5 years. Get un-busy! You’ve got to do this”. So, I really began to think about how to do this project: how to set it up, how to start, how to get a volunteer organization together. It’s all just pretty much a question of organizing it in your head, making a plan and executing the plan. 

Equerry: Was that at all overwhelming for you? 

Martine: It’s really not that hard. You have to think about it like it’s a pyramid. If you think about it as “Here I am, one person and I’m going to take care of all those horses and all those cancer patients” - that’s pretty overwhelming! But, I was thinking more in terms of, “OK, here I am and I am first going to find somebody to share my vision”. I found that person in Robin Moore from Dressage Today magazine. She immediately said that she wanted to help do this project with me. I thought that was fabulous so she became my East Coast person. Next, I knew we needed to find team leaders and that we would find them locally. To do that, we would need to contact the local dressage community, through the clubs. So, there was a map for everything already in place. Of course, the very first thing was to have a purpose, a mission for this whole project.

Our mission statement is that we want to provide help in the care of horses that belong to people who are stricken by cancer. Eventually, I don’t want to limit [the help that ECI can provide] to just cancer patients.

Equerry: Can you give an example of how the Initiative will work? 

Martine: If there were to be a person at a boarding stable who needs help and she has a horse, I would like us to be able to make sure that somebody can take over, such as a trainer, who can keep the horse working at the level it is working at. We want to be sure that there is a volunteer to drive the patient out to see the horse, as often as possible. Every day there has got to be somebody available to do that. If there’s a situation where horses are kept on the patient’s property, and it is feasible that people can just come and help with the care of the horses, that’s another way. If these horses need to be worked, we want to find competent people to do that. If that’s not realistic, we would want to find a boarding facility where we can temporarily board those horses.

You can kind of get the idea that we want to have a network. I don’t think that any needs are so outrageous they can’t be met. If a trainer gives an hour every other day, if a boarding stable gives a stall, if a feed store donates some feed - all this is manageable when you break it down.

Most people would want to help on their own, but how realistic is it without this kind of a structure? For example, if someone you didn’t know very well at your barn got cancer, you may feel badly and would want to help. But realistically, how much can you commit to that situation? You don’t know how bad it’s going to be or how long it’s going to take. It’s a big commitment that one shouldn’t go into without really thinking about it. It would be a lot of work for just one person. It’s hard enough to just take care of your own stuff in addition to somebody else’s. But, if there were an organization that allowed you to do just an hour a week, and it had other people helping, then, there you go... everybody helps out and it’s painless for everyone.

We are taking the inherent desire in people to help and making it easy for them. People generally are really willing to help so we want to break it down and make the expectations reasonable. Most people can commit to an hour a week, for example. People tend to not follow through when they think somebody else will [take care of things].

Then there is the whole legal issue. That’s not a small problem in this country! We’re living in a day and age when doctors don’t even feel they can stop and help accident victims on the side of the road because they are afraid of getting sued. So, there’s a lot more involved than simply volunteering.

Another important part of this initiative is that I want to be able to provide patients with the opportunity to enjoy their horses, even when things go south and they probably are not going to survive. Probably a lot of people would sell their horses too soon to make sure they got taken care of. So, the patients lose time with them. I want ECI to be able to say “Look, you just go out there and sit in the pasture with your horse and when the time comes, we will make sure your horse goes exactly where you want him to go.” That is something that I really would want if I were in that position.

These are the services that I think we can provide through the ECI. Once I thought about these parts of our goals and how to make them happen, things began to fall into place.

Equerry: How did the involvement with The Dressage Foundation come about?

Martine: There was a little footnote in a newsletter of theirs that I had picked up a year ago at a convention. I was researching something so I was looking through my old papers and there was a footnote about the Martin Simonsen Fund, set up by the New England Dressage Society to help cancer victims. So, I wanted to talk with them and see what they were up to. That was exactly six weeks before I was to go to the USDF (United States Dressage Federation) convention where they were also supposed to be. When I went there, I introduced myself to John Boomer, and his very nice wife, and told them who I was and about my idea for ECI. They thought it was brilliant and wanted to be involved.

Equerry: How will The Dressage Foundation be involved?

Martine: We are in an organizational frame of mind right now. I’m figuring out some of the legal aspects of volunteer issues. The way it is currently set up, The Dressage Foundation is the money managing arm of it. Donations and money management will be handled by them because they are very well equipped to do that. They are a great home for the financial end of it.

The organizational end will be handled by myself and Robin Moore as the tip of the iceberg. We have already gotten responses from people across the country so we are now soliciting volunteers. We want to see what we can shake out of the tree! The next level is for us to find local leaders that are responsible for managing the volunteer force within their designated areas. These team leaders will be required to offer a bit of commitment because depending on how many volunteers they have and how many cases they need to look at, it will require more than a couple of hours a week, I imagine. On the next level are all the volunteers. They need to be assigned positions for whatever they are equipped to do. They could be trainers or offer a boarding facility or just be a nice person willing to drive.

Equerry: Are you are now trying out the program to see how it works?

Martine: Yes. I spoke to a nice woman from the midwest who went through an experience similar to mine. It turned out not to be cancer, but the whole experience was something of a wake up call for her. She went through the same emotions that I had gone through, in terms of getting the rug pulled out from under you. She told me that she was so afraid of what would happen to her horses. That was her first and foremost worry. So she offered her help and now she is looking into the area where she lives so that we can kind of do a test run there. We want to see how this concept actually works in real life. It’s one thing to make a perfect plan, and another to be able to make it a reality. I would rather build this slowly. If we come across a situation sooner where there really is an acute need, I’m sure we can jerry-rig something together!

My next step is to write a press release. I am looking into ways of getting the word out without having to go through the political arena. I see ECI as something we can expand into other disciplines, growing into a great forum for many other things.

When someone steps out and does something to help another, that’s a great thing.


Click here for Part 2.


For more information on the Equestrian Cancer Initiative, or if you would like to help, call (619) 483-6920.

Emily Covington was employed at Hilltop Farm, Inc. in Colora, MD from 1992 through 1997. Starting as a working student, she later served as assistant stable manager, and rode young horses, including her own. She has produced a variety of photography and artwork for the farm’s publications. She now lives in Redlands, CA where she continues to ride and does various freelance work for Hilltop.



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